Call it the melee in Melville.
Zeldin, a lawyer who served in Iraq during the summer of 2006, got upset when Nassau-Suffolk Building Trades Council president Jimmy Castellane, one of about 20 union officials screening contenders, began discussion of Zeldin's military background, though Zeldin cut him off before the union leader could ask a question.
Already questioned about his ties to the tea party, Zeldin was so upset he stood up and both men went toe-to-toe - though it was unclear who approached whom - and they had to be parted. Later, the discussion continued in the parking lot.
"It was unfortunate my service was called into question," Zeldin said after it all was over, adding, "I take great pride in wearing the nation's uniform."
The Long Island Federation is a coalition of 160 AFL-CIO unions representing 250,000 members islandwide and Zeldin is the Republican Senate minority's best hope this fall for recapturing the narrow majority they lost two years ago. His foe is freshman State Sen. Brian X. Foley (D-Blue Point), who beat longtime senator Caesar Trunzo in 2008 but is now fending off an onslaught, largely because of his vote for the MTA payroll tax.
The flare-up comes just days after some of the heavy construction unions in Castellane's council showed up unexpectedly at a Foley public hearing in Hauppauge pressing for workable rules at a local asphalt plant that nearby residents oppose.
One insider said Castellane was unhappy at that breakaway move by his members and reacted by "flexing his own muscles" at the screening. Castellane declined to comment on the screening, but said there was no link between the two events, noting he'd thanked Zeldin for his service.
Some present at the screening said Castellane, a Vietnam vet, was in no way provocative. Still Zeldin backers saw the incident as a setup because Foley's campaign manager is the wife of the head of the screening panel, federation executive director Roger Clayman.
"Obviously, Clayman has been conflicted throughout this entire process," said Michael Johnson, Zeldin's campaign manager. "He should have recused himself from the screening considering Foley pays his wife $5,000 per month."
Zeldin himself did not think he "had much of a chance getting the Federation's endorsement beforehand," given Clayman's wife's role.
Clayman rejected that, saying the screening "was very fair" from the beginning.
Clayman said federation officials reached out to Zeldin even though, he said, Zeldin refused "to meet with union bosses" in 2008 when he ran a losing race to Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton). "I have never seen a candidate behave like that no matter what our differences," Clayman said, adding Zeldin "disgraced himself" Friday.
Later, Zeldin said Foley spread word of the clash for political gain. "I would strongly recommend my opponent focus on the . . . problems in Albany instead of promoting attacks against my military service," he said.
However, James LaCarrubba, Foley's top aide, said no one questions Zeldin's service, just his demeanor. "We appreciate his service. But this is a man who wants to represent 300,000 people. And a candidate in a room full of people should be able to control his temper," he said.
Zeldin minimized the significance of the clash, saying he and Castellane later talked outside calmly and the union leader expressed concern Zeldin may have misconstrued his original remarks. In the end, Zeldin said, "We shook hands like true veterans."